Public Safety launches drones for campus security

URBANA, Illinois – Attendees of large campus events may notice something new in the air as the Division of Public Safety begins to fly drones to get a bird’s eye view.

All flying is done in compliance with Illinois’ Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act (725 ILCS 167), which significantly limits law enforcement use of drones to a relatively short list of specific purposes. Among those are special events, missing person searches, crime scene or traffic crash photography, and a few others.

For the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, which is home to Division I football games and many other large events throughout the year, those special events likely will be the bulk of the flying.

“Events like this were one of the main reasons why the drone statutes in the state of Illinois were recently changed to allow law enforcement use, due to some tragic events at larger gatherings,” said Lt. Rob Benoit, who supervises the department’s unmanned aerial system (UAS) program. “We can bring drones out in these instances and monitor for any clues that someone may be preparing an attack. The air gives us a better vantage point to pick up on those behaviors and head it off before anything happens.”

Illinois state law prohibits law enforcement use of drones, except in a few very specific circumstances:

  • To counter a high risk of terrorist attack.
  • When police have a search warrant signed by a judge.
  • To look for missing people (but not as part of a criminal investigation).
  • In response to a 911 call when the sole purpose is to locate and help victims.
  • For crime scene or traffic crash photography.
  • During special events where notice has been posted at least 24 hours in advance to alert visitors that police drones are in use. In those cases, use is limited to detecting security breaches, evaluating crowd density, identifying and responding to public safety issues and assessing traffic or pedestrian flow.

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State law expressly prohibits drones from being weaponized in any way.

Protests are not considered special events under state law, so it will not be permissible for UIPD or other law enforcement agencies to use drones to monitor them.

The Division of Public Safety has no plans to deploy drones generally in the campus area.

“That’s one of the main misconceptions about law enforcement use of drones,” Benoit said. “This is not a tool that we intend to use – or even have the legal ability to use – to just randomly fly around and look for criminal offenses. And, quite frankly, our resources would be better used elsewhere. We really need to have something specific we’re responding to.”

In essence, the Division of Public Safety is using drones as mobile security cameras, to provide visuals that humans on the ground would not otherwise be able to access.

For example, it is anticipated that unmanned aerial systems will be particularly useful in searching for missing people. The drones have software that can stitch together photos of a wide area, and also has thermal cameras to make it easier to spot missing people or victims on the ground.

The Division of Public Safety has several drones but currently only one pilot. Other members of the department will complete training soon to be able to operate the vehicles.

The drones can record video, but that feature generally is not used, except in cases where they capture something that may become of evidentiary value later. Those cases are expected to be rare.

Most flights will be planned in advance and require flight logs, system checks, weather monitoring and potentially waivers or restrictions depending on the location of the flight. Pilots are trained to limit direct flight over large crowds as much as possible and instead opt for hovering over buildings or other relatively clear areas.

Drones can potentially be used while completing search warrants signed by a judge to enter a building where a suspect may be hiding or barricaded. Sending a drone in first can help law enforcement safely assess the area without risk of physical harm to bystanders, officers, or suspects. But that would be a rare scenario, and the Division of Public Safety has not yet used them in this way.

“This is really a visual tool for keeping people safe,” Benoit said. “We’re not interested in using these to generate cases or monitor routine activity – they are only used in a very limited number of circumstances where there’s a demonstrable need to get that high-angle visual.”